Thursday, 15 July 2010

My sauce good*

The Australian Constitution gives Parliament, inter alia, “ power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth”. One of its better efforts is the Standard for the uniform scheduling of drugs and poisons, which lists, in Schedules 8 and 9, items like heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, and cannabis. Fortunately, the mandarins have yet to discover ayvar.

Ayvar is my latest fave rave foodstuff. It is a capsicum paste, used as a sauce or relish in Balkan cooking. And it is seriously addictive.

I have seen this in the supermarket for years, but not taken any notice of it. I first tasted it at a Balkan eatery in Lilyfield, imaginatively called The Balkan Eatery. It’s run by a friendly Bosnian couple from Mostar (the bridge) and Sarajevo (Franz Ferdinand). All the Balkan classics — grilled lamb and chicken, stuffed capsicums, cabbage rolls, sensational plum jam biscuits — are here. But the great discovery, the must-try menu item, is a bread roll, stuffed full of grilled chevapi sausages, and dressed with ayvar. It is wondrous, a revelation of how good a sausage sandwich can be. Forget the netball girls outside Bunnings on Saturday — this is the snag sanger to die for. And at least part of its charm comes from the ayvar sauce.

Ayvar is brick red, spicy, and comes in mild or hot versions. You can use it as a relish on grilled lamb or other meat. I love it scooped on an egg with toast. The soft, bland, eggy egg and the spicy, umami-like relish — unforgettable! The perfect Sunday breakfast, along with the papers and good coffee. I also use it on pasta — make a Napoletana-type sauce, substituting ayvar for tomatoes. I have studded mine with a few black olives and capers.

This is a great foodstuff — A Good Sauce. There is lots of scope to experiment with ayvar. Just do it soon, before this much fun is outlawed

* My Sauce Good is a bright new Sydney band playing “addictive French Swing, original tunes, soulful Latin-American folksong, a haunting Hebrew lullaby, Bohemian Jazz from the 1920’s onwards and contemporary songs given a new lease of life”. Think gypsies, Django Reinhardt and St├ęphane Grapelli, continental cafes ... Some of their material has a real Balkans feel. Listen! And thank you to La Fanciulla for the heads up about this great band, and the wonderful CD!

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Goan fish curry — broth from heaven

I am a big fan of Goan fish curry. For years, my regular lunch partner, Greg, and I traversed the curry houses of Sydney enjoying this dish. We remember really good ones at the Malabar restaurants, in Crows Nest and, more recently, in Darlinghurst. We love its fishy broth, spicy taste, sour finish. For us, it is an essential part of a great long curry lunch. So I knew what I would be cooking and eating next weekend when Helen from Grab Your Fork recently included a Goan Fish Curry recipe, as part of an extended interview with Kumar Mahadevan of Aki's Indian restaurant in Woolloomooloo.

Goa is a small state on the west coast of India, which was a Portuguese territory for about 450 years, until 1961. It has strong Portuguese influences in its food, including the use of onions and garlic, and vinegar in the famous vindaloo dishes.

A couple of comments on the recipe:

The grated fresh coconut — Hold your coconut over the sink and give a few sharp taps with a hammer. This will crack it neatly around the equator, into two halves. Now the fun begins. If, like me, you only have implements ill-adapted to the purpose, scraping the coconut meat out of the shell will be a tedious process. You need a proper coconut scraper, an apprentice, or, preferably, both. Do not start to make this dish until you have been to an Indian grocer and bought a cheap coconut scraper!

The fish — I used ling fillets, which were available when I shopped, and produce a fine result. But next time I will go for an oilier fish, such as Spanish mackerel cutlets. Whatever you get, you want a fairly robust fish, that will not fall apart during poaching. I think this would be great using soaked bacalhau, which would echo the Portuguese influences on Goan cuisine.

My marsala paste was not as smooth as I like it, due to a last-minute mortar & pestle imbroglio. Not a huge problem, as the crunchy bits will settle in the broth before serving. The recipe is vague about how much water to add to make your curry. Suit yourself — I think one of the joys of this dish is the fairly thin, soupy broth, so I added enough water to achieve this. Experiment! The recipe also calls for tamarind powder. I only had block tamarind, so followed the usual process of steeping, straining, sieving. Add to taste — I think the tamarind sourness is an essential part of the flavour, so don’t hold back — add enough tamarind to bring this out.

And the final product? It is a great curry. Thick fish steaks swimming in a thin but rich, tasty broth, with distinct fishy character, a moderate spice kick, and lovely, tangy sour flavour from the tamarind. I teamed it with lots of rice to soak up the broth, and a dry curry of spinach and lentils, to give textural variation. And Bolst’s lime pickle, to carry on the sour spicy feel. Delicious!

This is a delicious, relatively simple dish to make, once you have your grated fresh coconut sorted. Try it soon, enjoy, then head off to Aki’s to compare with the original!

And thanks, Helen, for the great recipe!

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Snow complications

Do you remember Barry Humphries monologue from the sixties — about going to the snow, with the line “we all shacked up there with stacks of the old gluhwein, a few crates of tinnies, a couple of little snow bunnies and no complications”? That was the first time I had heard about gluhwein. And it was a few years before I actually tried it. I remember that moment well — a freezing winter night in Gundagai, a bunch of geologists in a caravan, and someone brewed up this potent, heady mix. I loved it! I came across it again in the old town square in Prague during a glacial (well, I am from Sydney!) late November, where market stalls were doing a roaring trade in mulled wine and warm rum – sugar concoctions.

And I was delighted to re-acquaint myself with it at the Sydney Winter Festival. A bunch of people hanging out at a temporary skating rink in Cook + Phillip Park outside St Mary’s Cathedral. With winter food and drink, German music, a “ski lodge”, snow makers, etc. And gluhwein. Just right for a cold night, teamed with bratwurst and sauerkraut on a roll, mit Zenf.

The skating was fun to watch. There was a real mix of skills, from great skaters to people hanging, grimly, to the rink edge, their friend, or the witches hats. Note to self: “Don’t ever suggest ice skating or other activities needing physical coordination as a first date”. OK. Some had made a real effort dressing up, with fur muffs, Cossack hats, sparkly stockings, flippy skirts. Others were not quite so classy. But the mix of people, all having fun, reminded me of a lovely day at the beach. But with beanies and scarves. At night. In the snow.

Anyway, enough of the social context. This blog is supposed to be, at least, a bit about cooking. Wikipedia gives a bunch of info on gluhwein across various European countries. The common ingredients appear to be wine, sugar, citrus, and spices. There are also interesting mentions of mulled ale from England and Poland. And so, I turned to a recipe for gluhwein. The one on the Food Safari website looked interesting. Here’s how it turned out.

The orange studded with cloves reminded me of the pomander balls my mother used to make. This is drop-dead easy cooking — bung everything in a saucepan, heat, let it think for a while, strain, drink. But high impact — the flavours are so clean, fresh, rich. You can keep any excess (?) in the fridge to reheat later. On the internet you can find a gazillion different recipes for gluhwein. They range from simple concoctions with simple spicing, to recipes that contain “all the spices of Araby” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1).

This recipe was delicious — a warming, spicy, welcoming draught of mid-winter joy. I liked the additional sense of dryness and sourness from the cranberry juice. Make it soon, before the weather starts to warm up! Great for a Saturday night in, with a video, a casserole, and, perhaps, a couple of snow bunnies. Already I am starting to think about January, and gluhwein gelato — a kind of sangria slushy ...

You could overcomplicate this recipe by adding to many spices and extra flavours. But as Barry Humphries recognised, some things are better with “no complications”.